ATLANTA — For Roddy White, it’s a simple question with an obvious answer.
So, how did the Atlanta Falcons and the Green Bay Packers skip the transition phase after losing iconic quarterbacks?
Look no further than the guys who replaced Michael Vick and Brett Favre.
“It’s a simple formula. You get a good quarterback and then you win,” said White, the Falcons’ star receiver. “This league is such a quarterback-driven league. You have to have a good quarterback.”
Today, when the Falcons (8-2) host the Packers (7-3) in a matchup of division leaders, it’s more than just a game with potentially huge ramifications for the postseason picture. These franchises could write a large chunk of the book on how to deal with an abrupt change of course.
As White said, it starts at the most prominent position on the field.
The Packers had Aaron Rodgers ready to take over as soon as they grew tired of Favre’s on-again, off-again infatuation with retirement. The Falcons drafted Matt Ryan the first chance they got after Michael Vick went off to prison for running a dogfighting ring.
Just like that, two franchise quarterbacks had been replaced by ... well, franchise quarterbacks.
“You plug in a guy with Matt’s ability, you’re not really going to miss a beat,” said receiver Brian Finneran, who’s seen all sorts of aborted rebuilding attempts during his decade with the Falcons. “You plug in a guy like Aaron Rodgers, who’s calm, cool and collected back there in a pocket and just picking people apart, you’re not going to miss a beat, either.”
Of course, football is more than a one-man sport. The greatest quarterback on the planet is going to struggle if he doesn’t have some good players around him.
The Falcons not only drafted Ryan, they signed Michael Turner, traded for Tony Gonzalez and doled out a long-term contract to keep White happy. They not only surrounded Ryan with an abundance of weapons, they went heavy on defense the last two drafts and acquired lock-down cornerback Dunta Robinson to fill their biggest hole.
More than anything, they hired a general manager (Thomas Dimitroff) and coach (Mike Smith) who weren’t the least bit interested in dwelling on the Vick era.
“It’s real simple for me,” Smith said. “We weren’t going to talk about what happened in the past. We were aware of it.
But we were starting with a clean slate for everybody.”
Safety Thomas DeCoud was picked in the same draft as Ryan. By the time they got to Atlanta, the Falcons were moving quickly to put Vick in the rearview mirror.
“If you make a change, but then you still dwell on what happened before, it can hinder your progress,” DeCoud said.
“Yeah, we have to address it and understand where we came from. But you’ve also got to understand that you don’t want to be there anymore, that we’re moving forward and getting better. You can’t dwell on the past.”
Up in Green Bay, the Packers didn’t have to deal with anything as traumatic as seeing the most famous player in franchise history heading off to prison. But there’s no overstating how difficult it was to deal with Favre’s annual should-I-or-shouldn’t-I-retire drama, then finally cutting ties even when he had yet another change of heart.
Rodgers had spent three years grooming under Favre, and the Packers figured it was his time to hand him the keys to the team. They haven’t had a minute of regret about that decision, even when their former quarterback resumed his career — first in New York, then returning to the same division to play with one of Green Bay’s biggest rivals, the Minnesota Vikings.
“It’s really just staying the course,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We have an unbelievably stable organization. We have the resources and support to make tough decisions and stay the course. Aaron Rodgers is a fine young man, both personally and professionally. He’s been everything and more that we could’ve asked for.”
The Falcons are 28-14 since Smith took over as coach with Ryan as his quarterback. They have snapped one of the most infamous streaks in sports — putting together consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history — and now they’re just one win away from making it three in a row.
“I think Smitty really set the tone for the players,” Ryan said. “His big thing was we can’t worry what happened before. It’s all about getting better day to day and focusing on the future. We’ve done a pretty good job of it.”
Green Bay stumbled out of the gate with Rodgers at quarterback, going 6-10 in his first season as the starter.
But the Packers improved to 11-5 a year ago, making it back to the playoffs, and they’re now tied Chicago for the NFC North lead and riding a four-game winning streak.
If there was ever any doubt that the previous QB isn’t missed, Rodgers threw for 301 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-3 rout of Favre and the Vikings last Sunday.
“That speaks volumes to the talent of Aaron Rodgers,” Smith said. “To lose a quarterback of that statute and for Aaron to come in and do what he’s done. Basically, they haven’t missed a beat in terms of what they’re doing offensively.”
Rodgers can certainly see plenty of similarities with what he went through replacing Favre, and the pressure that Ryan faced after No. 7 traded his uniform for a prison jumpsuit.
“I’m sure his leadership and moxie and the way he conducted himself in a very, very positive way had a big impact on his teammates, especially with the turnover they were having there,” Rodgers said. “And obviously he has that ‘it’ factor that a quarterback needs to have to get those guys to play for him, and to raise their level of play around him.
“I hope,” the Packers quarterback added, “my teammates are saying something similar about me.”
Lost in transition? Not these two teams.